In previous blogs I have talked about muscle memory and the need for directors to allow actors to discover work for themselves so it will be there to play over and over again, and in my interview with Blanche McIntyre she reiterates the same idea. Well, yesterday I met with Angela Bull and Johnny Schumacker to bring back to life Skin Tight by Gary Henderson and to see if the worked really had stayed in the muscle memory. We last performed 70 something days ago in Exeter as part of the wonderful IGNITE festival at the Cygnet New Theatre, and we will be performing next Wednesday evening at St. Stephens Centre in Edinburgh as part of Stockfest. This situation and this process has been a first for me and needless to say I was nervous the night before as to how best to help my actors rediscover their play. Neither actor had seen or performed with the other in two and half months. Not that you would have known that to have watched Angie or Johnny rehearse yesterday.
From the moment we began to warm-up our bodies and minds back in to the world of the play they were re-connected. I led them through a vigorous warm-up (as the play is so physically demanding) using the same exercises from our last rehearsal period, devised by Dan Styles and Clare McKenna. We then moved onto some basic movement and fight exercises, again to remind the body and re-ignite their physical memory of each other. I then asked them to keep on with the exercises, free forming movement and fight and moving between exercises without speaking but through communication with eye contact alone but to start to think as their characters, Elizabeth and Tom. That’s it. That’s all I said. ‘Look at each other as Elizabeth and Tom.’ There was an instant physical change between them both as they reconnected now, not just as colleagues on a play, but as husband and wife in this unique dream-like 1940’s world we created three months ago in our previous rehearsals. As they continued to work through their movement and fight exercises I suggested images from the play, from their past lives together, from the research we had done about the couple’s life, all originally drawn from our work on the text, but all the time still in silence, only communicating through look and touch. All the impulses and actions from the play came back to them and it was wonderful as a director to watch.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. There were definite bumps when recalling exact fight and movement choreography for detail and safety (thank goodness for filming previous rehearsals and performances for clarity of timing and positioning!). The dreaded line run wasn’t much fun either. At times the energy dropped right out of the room as lines were stumbled over and both actors got frustrated at themselves (though never at each other which is another reason why these two work so well). I was on script for them during the line run and I noticed something very interesting. Their bodies knew the line but something was preventing it coming out. Consciously the fear and worry of ‘knowing’ the sentence seemed to be causing the errors in the first place. It is a very weird phenomenon and hard to describe but after a while of working with actors and with the same ones intensely, you learn to read their movements and I could see when the ‘moment’ was definitely wanting to come out but it was being blocked by something else.
After the line run, I suggested ‘for shits and giggles’ we should run the show. Throw everything at it right from the start with the right energy and see what’s what. They did and it was amazing to watch. The speeches that had disappeared before came back. Intentions were all there with tiny moments of details brought back to life and, incredibly, new discoveries found as well. Of course there were errors and moments that weren’t quite right or forgotten but all of those happened as well when for the briefest moment when Angie or Johnny doubted themselves and what they were doing; or, as Blanche McIntyre talked about in our interview, when they became too aware of themselves and less focused on each other or sharing the story.
But bloody hell…to do what they did after only being back in the room for a couple of hours with each other…I was blown away again. Actors are remarkable people.